There is, of course, a slight irony in that only a few days ago, I was writing about why I don’t use prototyping tools, and here I am writing a review of a prototyping tool. Well, not quite. I think Balsamiq is actually more of a sketching tool, partly because the artifacts generated from the tool don’t try to fool viewers that it’s a representation of the real thing. Some prototyping tools, particularly the higher end editions, pride themselves in being able to mimic the user experience of the actual application. Unless that simulation really truly mimics the actual user experience of the not-yet-built production version of the application, the feedback you get from users may actually be completely irrelevant. For that reason, I really like the Balsamiq approach of being overtly sketch-like, a constant reminder that this is an idea in progress, and an invitation to tear it apart as necessary.
Like McCain might’ve said, “the fundamentals of Balsamiq are sound.” No, but seriously, I think the fundamental concept of a light-weight tool with ready-made sketch-like widgets can be a very effective model for quickly roughing out and sharing ideas. Overall, I think Balsamiq is a tool with a lot of potential, and certainly a worthy competitor to Gliffy (or a complement, since Gliffy seems to focus more on diagramming.) In its current form (I was trying version 1.5), I think I’d definitely add it to my toolbox, but for reasons I list below, the times when it would make sense for me to use it would likely be narrow.
Having to download an application like this feels a little old-skool. Seems like it should be possible to use the tool directly within a browser (and I’m guessing that’s something we’ll see in a future version.)
Somewhat ironically, one area that really could use improvement is the user interface of the tool itself. The need to scroll horizontally to access widgets, for example, is simply not great. Additionally, a lot of basic UI issues, such as the affordances of the widget categories (both in terms of text size and “I’m-clickable” quality) really could use some work. The good news is that this is probably something that wouldn’t be that hard to fix. Here is quick mockup I created with Balsamiq of one possible idea for a redesign:
The main change I am making here: Applying a more standard application structure. Let’s keep the experimentation on the art board, and not force users to figure out the UI of the application itself. Additionally, I think the look and feel of the application UI should be obviously different from user-created sketch widgets – currently, it’s all a bit of a blur.
Not being able to just draw freeform is almost a show-stopper for me. This just seems so fundamental to the idea of sketching, and becomes particularly critical for a tool like this, in which (as I discussed in my earlier post about prototyping tools) you will inevitably and possibly quite commonly need to add something for which there simply is not a good ready-made widget.
I wasn’t able to try sharing or embedding the tool, but from my experience using Gliffy with Confluence, if Balsamiq is anything like that, I think that definitely adds value to the tool.
I found the organization of widgets confusing, seeming to always be clicking between the Layout and Containers categories or whatever, hunting for the right widget. I think the ability to toggle a full-screen gallery of widgets might be the way to go. Also, despite being at the top of the page, the widget search feature is not obvious (possibly an affordance issue due to the lack of a search button.)
Paper Prototyping Template Maker?
One great use for this tool would be to create paper prototyping foundations. In other words, one would perhaps produce an application wrapper, and then print multiple copies of that to then physically draw application sketches.
Some things I’d like see in Balsamiq (aside from freeform drawing) is the ability to define my own favorite widgets. Additionally, I’d like to be able to upload widgets I’ve created in other tools and not only add them to my library, but also post them to a community library, in which I would be able to browse widgets created by others. I also think the sketch pad background is cute, but not very practical. Would want to be able to turn it off, or create my own sharable background, such as a browser window shell.
Overall, I think Peldi and the Balsamiq team have done great work. Keep it up!